A piece of papyrus is outlined and highlighted with light.

What do the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal about the origins of Christianity?

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls gave us a glimpse into Jewish life at the time of Jesus. What insights do they provide on how his teachings took shape?

Dated as early as the second century A.D., this papyrus fragment is among the oldest known surviving texts from the New Testament.
Photograph By PAOLO VERZONE, Nat Geo Image Collection

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946 has been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. Some 100,000 fragments from around 900 manuscripts, dating from the third century B.C. to 68 A.D., were uncovered in clay pots tucked away in 11 caves in the West Bank’s Qumran region near the Dead Sea. Most scholars believe they were written and copied by a mystic Jewish sect known as the Essenes.

Comprising every section of the Old Testament (except Esther) plus sectarian manuscripts, these scrolls are extremely important to the Jewish faith. But with Christianity’s foundation rooted in Judaism, they also illuminate the earliest foundations of Christianity. Or do they? Jesus is not mentioned in any of them—in fact, most were written before Jesus began his ministry. So what’s the connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity?

(Who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls? Science may have the answer.)

They verify the Old Testament

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the earliest known Hebrew Bible manuscript dated from the 10th century A.D. At the time, there was no “Bible,” per se. Instead, there was a loose collection of sacred writings belonging to different Jewish sects.

The Dead Sea Scrolls show that in the first century B.C., these different versions of books became part of the Hebrew canon. Some of the scrolls are copies of actual books of the Hebrew Scriptures, thereby preserving the texts of the Bible itself. Remember, in those ancient times, there were no photocopiers; these scrolls were meticulously written by hand. They validate much of what scholars had translated in other versions of the Bible—there is a consistency in messaging.

(These biblical queens took center stage in the Old Testament.)

They provide insight into the Jewish culture during Jesus’ time

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls came descriptions of the culture and history of first-century Israel—enabling scholars to reconstruct the world of Jesus. Of the more than 900 scrolls, 700 are non-biblical writings that reveal things like community rules, military organization and strategy, and daily prayers. For example, they describe ritual washings that Jewish communities practiced, helping to understand something about the role of baptism that emerged in early Christianity (à la John the Baptist).

In addition, while the Dead Sea Scrolls provide insight into the specific Qumran community believed to be responsible for them, they also describe a broader range of ancient Jewish belief and practice. Some scholars argue the scrolls represent the contents of Jerusalem’s libraries, which were quickly hidden before the Romans invaded during the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 B.C.), decades before Jesus was born, and therefore reflect the beliefs and practices of many different Jewish sects at a highly volatile time in Judean history.

(Ancient DNA offers clues to physical origins of Dead Sea Scrolls.)

They show Jesus knew Hebrew Scripture 

The Hebrew Scripture of Jesus’ time—as shown by the Dead Sea Scrolls— was the basis of his teachings, particularly in its definition of its most essential values: social responsibility and faithfulness to God. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus states at the end of the Beatitudes, referring to the two principal divisions of the Hebrew Bible—the Law and the Prophets—of his time; “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). And he adds, “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” 

In the process, he was recognized as a rabbi, a teacher schooled in the precepts of the Hebrew Bible. “When the Sabbath came,” says the evangelist Mark, “he entered the synagogue and taught.” And all the congregation was “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:21-22).

They corroborate with core messages of Jesus’ ministry

There is no reason Jesus should be mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as they were penned by devout members of the Jewish community. But they also offer insights into the broader Jewish beliefs and expectations during the Second Temple period (516 B.C.–70 A.D.), which can indirectly shed light on the Jewish faith and tradition that

Jesus learned and which informed aspects of his core messages.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, reveal an apocalyptic worldview prevalent among some Jewish groups, which emphasized the belief in an imminent divine intervention in human affairs to bring about the defeat of evil forces and the establishment of God’s rule on Earth. Similarily, Jesus’ teachings emphasize the Kingdom of God as a present reality that was breaking into the world, while also looking forward to its complete realization in the future with God’s final judgement. This context is important in understanding Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God and the end of times.

(Christianity struggled to grow—until this skeptic became a believer.)

They may have foretold Jesus as the Messiah

One important theme in the Gospels is the coming of the Messiah—a savior or liberator of a group of people—something the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to as well. But the Qumran sect and Jesus differed in their beliefs about the role of the Messiah. The Qumranites saw the coming of the Messiah as the result of regime change, a clash between good and evil—something political. “The winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, … but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

For Jesus, however, the purpose of the Messiah was to lead the nation to spiritual and social salvation regardless of the political circumstances.

(Biblical stories of Jesus' birth reveal intriguing clues about his times.)

When all is said and done

The Dead Sea Scrolls do not describe any events that focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most were written and copied before Jesus began his ministry for devout Jews and do not mention Jesus directly. And yet, they provide valuable historical context to understanding the world in which Jesus lived—and in which early Christianity was born and evolved—including the beliefs and practices of Jews in the land of Israel.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in The Dead Sea Scrolls: 75 Years Since Their Discovery. Copyright © 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.

To learn more, check out The Dead Sea Scrolls: 75 Years Since Their Historic Discovery. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.

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